LOS ANGELES — The friendship between Arizona's Sean Miller and Ohio State's Thad Matta began with a practical joke.
A few days after Matta joined the staff at Miami (Ohio) as an assistant coach in 1994, Miller asked his new colleague if he wanted to drive with him to a coaching clinic Miller would be speaking at the next morning. Matta asked where the clinic was, and Miller responded casually, "I'm not exactly sure. It's around here somewhere."
"We left at 6:00 from Oxford and arrived in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, at like 3 a.m," Matta recalled with a smile. "He got me. At that point, I kind of knew what I was in for."
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Miller's and Matta's lives will again intertwine Thursday night in Los Angeles when second-seeded Ohio State and sixth-seeded Arizona face off in the West regional semifinals. Though the matchups on the floor will be fun to watch, the most intriguing duel will be the battle of wits on the sidelines as two close friends very familiar with each other's rosters and strategies try to stay one step ahead of one-another.
The only time Matta and Miller have ever coached head-to-head was in a memorable second-round NCAA tournament game in 2007. Top-seeded Ohio State stormed back from a nine-point deficit in the final three minutes against Miller's Xavier team, tying the game on a Ron Lewis 3-pointer with two seconds to go in regulation and pulling away in overtime.
Matta and Miller didn't even realize a Sweet 16 rematch was a possibility this March until they traded texts a few hours after this year's selection show. Miller mentioned he liked his team's draw because of the possibility of Arizona fans taking over Staples Center if his team advanced to the West Regional. It was then that Matta took a closer look at the bracket and realized his team could be LA-bound too.
Neither coach enjoys competing against a good friend, but both will block that out of their mind Thursday because so much is at stake.
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"I think both of us are really focused on preparing and being at our best," Miller said. "Having said that, when you lose the game -- and hopefully that won't be me -- it's a little easier to deal with because no matter who Ohio State plays, I always cheer for them because of my relationship with Thad. I wouldn't be here today without him. I learned a lot from him, enjoyed being around him when he worked together and we remain very good friends."
Both Miller, 44, and Matta, 45, were in their mid-20s when they first got to know each other at Miami (Ohio).
Miller, a former slick-passing point guard at Pittsburgh, left Wisconsin in 1993 to work as an assistant under Herb Sendek at Miami. Matta, a former standout shooter at Butler, impressed Sendek enough the following year while working one of his sumer camps to land a full-time assistant job.
At Miami, Matta and Miller had little choice but to get to know one-another well because they worked 14-hour days in a small, cramped office they shared. They would prepare scouting reports, break down film, take recruiting trips together and bust on one-another until the wee hours of the morning.
"The bond they began to form then has grown and developed over the years," said Dayton director of basketball operations Bill Comar, who worked under Sendek at Miami and under Matta and Miller at Xavier. "It's a close relationship because the respect they have for one-another as coaches, having come up together at the same time and being about similar types of things in terms of coaching and relating to players."
When Matta landed the head coaching job at Xavier in 2001, one of his first big moves was to hire Miller as his top assistant. To sweeten the deal, Matta even let Miller, his pregnant wife and their two sons move in with him for a few weeks while they looked for a house.
"It probably felt like a couple months to Thad and his wife," Miller joked.
How was Miller as a roommate?
"Sloppy," Matta said with a chuckle.
The duo proved a better combination as coaches and recruiters than roommates the next three years, leading the Musketeers to two Atlantic 10 regular season titles, three NCAA tournament appearances and an Elite Eight run in 2004.
Matta was laid-back, analytical and relentlessly positive; Miller was fiery, intense and not afraid to get in a player's face. Matta excelled planning efficient practices and streamlining game plans; Miller was a born teacher who often got on the floor himself to demonstrate what he wanted his players to do. And both of them put trust in their players and the rest of the staff but demanded everyone work as hard as they did.
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"I don't know if I've ever seen two high-level coaches work so well together," said former Xavier women's basketball coach Kevin McGuff. "Thad has a unique ability to relate to young people, to bring out the best in them and to create chemistry within a team. Sean is like a basketball savant. He has an unbelievable ability to create an identiy based on toughness and defense. His teams find a way to will themselves to victory. They're both amazing coaches, but they just have different strengths."
The lone downside to the success of Xavier under Miller and Matta was it forced them to part ways sooner than they might have expected. Ohio State offered Matta its job soon after Xavier's Elite Eight run. And Miller couldn't go with Matta because Xavier opted to promote him to head coach.
Despite their separation, Matta and Miller kept in contact as often as a few times a week, sometimes talking about anything but basketball but other times bouncing strategy off one-another or seeking a scouting report on a team one had already played. Matta also served as a mentor for Sean's younger brother, Archie, helping find his first full-time assistant job after his playing days at NC State were over and later hiring him as an assistant at Ohio State during the 2007-08 season.
"Thad and Sean have always looked out for me," said Archie, now the head coach at Dayton. "When I was a [graduate assistant] at NC State, those guys would be out at the Kingwood Classic calling me like, 'Hey, you've got to call so-and-so. He might have a job for you.' To be honest, I don't think I aever get my start if it wasn't for them. I've never made a move my entire life without consulting with my brother or Thad."
The friendship between Matta and Miller was a storyline leading into the 2007 NCAA tournament matchup between Ohio State and Xavier, but the vitriol from Musketeers fans angry that Matta had left for Ohio State pushed it to the back burner. The Xavier crowd booed Matta when they caught sight of him during a practice the day before the game and again when he emerged from the tunnel on game day, a reaction Miller called "disappointing" at the time.
As a result of how that game unfolded, it's one of the few subjects neither Miller nor Matta bring up with one-another. In addition to the heartbreak of wasting a late nine-point lead for Xavier, the outcome was controversial because referees opted not to call an apparent intentional foul on Greg Oden for shoving a Musketeers player out of bounds with 10 seconds left in regulation.
"That was as big a heartbreaker as I can remember," said Xavier director of basketball administration Mario Mercurio, who worked under both Matta and Miller as well. "I've never watched a tape of that game. I've never seen Ron Lewis' shot except for when it was live. I would say that not many people at Xavier acknowledge that game's existence. I don't know if Sean and Thad talk about that game much, but I know this. I never talk to Sean about it."
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This week has been a little bit easier for Matta and Miller simply because neither of them have to face their former school or players they recruited. Aside from the questions from reporters about their friendship and the knowledge that the opposing coach is probably extra familiar with their strategies and personnel, it's pretty much business as usual.
Matta and Miller were relaxed enough on the eve of Thursday's game that they chatted for a while in a Staples Center hallway after running into one-another. In fact, Miller's eldest son Austin wants to attend Ohio State, so the Arizona coach discussed with Matta having him perhaps be a student manager for the Buckeyes.
Of course, Matta agreed, but not without missing the chance to rib his friend for the $25,000 fine he had to pay as a result of his conduct after receiving a technical foul in the Pac-12 semifinals earlier this month.
"I told him if his son does come, he could stay in my basement and save on room and board because of his fine," Matta quipped.
Yet another one liner in a friendship that has featured plenty of smiles, plenty of laughs and plenty of success.
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